The title of this list may seem like a quaint, almost antiquated notion for Western readers. Especially those living in the U.S. where the political aims of punk rock have been watered down and neutered to the point where Green Day can help create a Broadway musical. In so many other countries of the world, music is an absolutely essential ingredient in politics and solidarity-building among the oppressed.
No one understood this better than Nigerian phenom Fela Kuti, the musician behind the phrase that inspired this list. The Afrobeat pioneer used his hypnotic jams to speak out against the dictatorial governments that ruled his home nation in the seventies and eighties. His music was so powerful in fact that his 1977 album Zombie upset the powers that be to the point that soldiers were dispatched to Kuti’s home village, beating the musician severely and burning down his home. He was also an instrumental figure in the anti-apartheid movement. Fela’s work may have not brought about the sweeping changes that he hoped for, but he provided a voice and a soundtrack for thousands of Africans fighting for a better future.
Fela is, of course, not alone in using his art as a weapon, nor is he the only one who has had his music and message captured on film. What follows is a list of films that use music as a means of pushing against a rising tide of socio-political terrors. May they inspire you and rouse you into action.
1. Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense (Dennis Marks, 1984) To get a sense of the power of Fela Kuti’s work, start with this short, sharp documentary. The hour-long piece mixes fiery live footage of he and his band Egypt 80, intercut with an expansive interview where the musician talks about his struggles in his home nation and his bruised public image. Too, it provides a great short history of the many political upheavals in Nigeria that inspired Fela’s most vibrant anthems of anger and disgust.
2. El tigre saltó y mató, pero morirá… morirá… (Santiago Alvarez, 1973) This devastating short by Cuban director Santiago Alvarez uses a montage of attacks on citizens by police and military forces, newspaper clippings and text to connect the bloody 1973 coup of Chile by Augusto Pinochet to repressive forces all around the world. It is poignantly set to a song from Victor Jara, one of the most popular poets and songwriters in the country. The forty-year-old artist had inspired a resurgence of protest folk that so threatened the Pinochet regime that army members arrested and murdered Jara mere days after taking power.
3. Between Resistance and Community (Joe Carrol and Ben Holtzman, 2008) The anti-establishment, anti-consumerist DIY movement that continues to bubble under the surface of the U.S. is represented in this documentary by a thriving punk scene in Long Island, New York. The house shows and roughly constructed music captured here provide a thrilling charge to the system and a potential alternative to the still-floundering music industry of today.
4. Emmanuel Jal: War Child (Christian Karim Chrobog, 2008) The stories told by Emmanuel Jal in his spirited, African-inspired hip-hop anthems come from devastating personal experience. The musician was recruited into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, fighting in the civil war that, though it supposedly ended in 2005, has sent ripples of conflict throughout the country. In this stirring film, Jal recounts his harrowing tale and uses his music and story as a platform to advocate on behalf of social justice and the rights of oppressed people around the world.
5. Everyday Sunshine (Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler, 2011) Though not a explicitly political band, Fishbone nevertheless represented the freedom and spirit of an African American musical tradition that extended back to the days of Louis Armstrong and all the way up to the work of groups like TV On The Radio. The history of the band and the influence that they had on the punk and alternative scenes in the eighties and nineties is presented here, warts and fights and drug-fueled insanity and all.
6. Sonic Outlaws (Craig Baldwin, 1995) The struggles against the commodification of culture, and the controversies surrounding the use of samples and found sound for social commentary are filtered through the long-running puckish sonic terrorists known as Negativland, and the legal trouble they stumbled into when sampling a profanity-laced Casey Kasem outtake for one of their singles. Joining Negativland in this film are fellow politically minded musicians/artists such as Plunderphonics pioneer John Oswald and the Barbie Liberation Army, known most for swapping the voice chips in talking Barbie and GI Joe dolls.